Saturday, September 15, 2018

Teshuva - The Thirteen Attributes of Mercy

The Thirteen Attributes of Compassion (or as they are often called Mercy) as outlined in the biblical book of Exodus 34:6-7, are intimately tied into the spirituality of the Hebrew month of Elul and the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and by extension the whole concept of teshuvah. They are never recited by an individual, but only as part of a minyan. When Moses ascended Mount Sinai to pray to G-d for forgiveness for the sin of the Golden Calf, G-d revealed them to Moses, telling him that Jews can receive forgiveness through teshuvah by reciting them at the appointed times during the year.

There is some disagreement regarding the words and phrases of the various attributes. Some seem either identical or very similar. They apply to all sorts of people with varying degrees of merit so there are a multitude of shades and nuances.

The number thirteen is significant. The Hebrew word Echad - which means Unity , when spelled out in Hebrew letters, totals thirteen in the gematria system indicating that even though there are thirteen attributes, G-d's unity is perfect. He is One. These attributes of mercy play an integral part in the chassidic parable of the King (G-d) who goes from his Castle (Heaven) out into the field (the reality of our material world) to greet his subjects (the Jews) and encourage them to come to Him. They do not, however, actually motivate man's divine service. They only generate the potential for it.

The thirteen attributes are:
(1) HaShem - G-d's name indicating Mercy before sin
(2) HaShem - Mercy after sin
(3) Keil - another of G-d's names indicating Strength
(4) Rachum - Compassionate
(5) v'Chanun - Gracious
(6) Erech Appayim - Slow to anger
(7) v'Rav Chesed - Abundant in Kindness
(8) v'Emet - Trustworthy
(9) Notzer Chesed La'alafim - Preserver of Kindness for thousands [of generations]
(10) Noser Avon - Forgiver of iniquity
(11) vaFesha - Forgiver of willful sin
(12) v'Chata'ah - Forgiver of careless sin
(13) v'Nakkeh - Aquitter  of all sins of those sincerely repentant.

Following is a set of photos taken during the Havdalah ritual at the end of Shabbat on September 8th.






Thursday, September 6, 2018

Teshuvah - The Shofar

The first day, Rosh Chodesh, of the Hebrew month of Elul - and by extension the entire month of Elul  - is the time for spiritual stock-taking. There is a set of prayers - called selichot - recited during the month which is symbolic of a Jew washing his vessel - his soul - with the tears that he sheds over the state of his spiritual life. The avodah - the prayers of Rosh Hashanah that are recited - repair the vessel through the Jew's acceptance of the yoke of heaven - kabbalah ol, and repentance - teshuvah.

The sounding of the shofar is the call for the time of teshuvah. Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneerson, the fifth Chabad Rebbe, in a treatise (in Hebrew called a ma'amar), delivered on the second night of Rosh Hashanah 5659 (1898), talked about the various calls of the shofar: they mimic a human cry to awaken a person to cry out to G-d for repentance. They are: tekiah - a long, resounding blast; shevarim - three shorter blasts; and teruah - nine very short sounds.  They correspond to the types of cries of the penitent. The Rebbe describes tekiah as 'a simple sound, an inner cry from the depths of the heart, which is produced by [deep].... distress.' Teruah is described, by Torah sage Rashi, as 'one who groans from his heart in the manner of the sick who prolong their groan'; and alternately as 'one who weeps and laments with short, close sounds.' To accommodate both sounds, the shevarim-teruah is sounded consisting of three medium-length sounds (groaning) followed by nine shorter sounds (weeping). The most recent Rebbe - Menachem Mendel Schneerson - describes shevarim-teruah as 'groaning and weeping sounds, when the distress reaches even deeper into a person's soul, giving him no respite at all, to the point where he is unable to catch his breath even to utter a simple cry; he can only groan and weep, in short broken sobs.'

The shofar is sounded for the entire month of Elul in preparation for the holy day of Rosh Hashanah, which celebrates the recognition of the day that Adam was created. In the words of the Chabad Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, 'The sound of the shofar is an inner sound that emanates from the innermost dimension of the heart.' It is so powerful that it cannot find expression in words or thought. Because it's significance comes from so deep inside the essence of man, 'the G-dly influence evoked by the shofar is from the inner dimension and essence of the Or Ein Sof (the most elevated G-dly light).'

The sounding of the shofar, which is a hollowed out ram's horn, is connected to Divine pleasure. Through the physical action of blowing the horn and creating the sounds G-d's essential will and pleasure are expressed.

In a stiebel (a small synagogue) on East Broadway in Manhattan:



Drilling a hole to make a shofar from a ram's horn:



At the Chai Center Chabad house in Short Hills, New Jersey:



After making a shofar, it's fun to actually blow into it. Very difficult to make a reasonable sound:




Girls do it too:



Friday, August 17, 2018

Teshuvah - Repentance and Return

Teshuvah, a Hebrew word meaning both repentance and return, is loaded with meaning and significance in the lexicon of chassidut. It may be best understood within the context of spiritual searching. The third Lubavitch Rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedech, said that true teshuvah means to return to G-d, to be close to him through reciting the Shema prayer and performing mitzvot. He taught that G-d sends us hardships to cleanse us of our sins, and that they should be received with true affection because their purpose is our benefit.

There are two phases of teshuvah: 1) there is remorse over what has been done and 2) commitment to act differently in the future. These are intimately connected. The only test of sincere remorse is the subsequent commitment to a better way of life. To be contrite about the past without changing one's behavior is a hollow gesture. It is this change in behavior that elevates a person committed to teshuvah. A tzaddikchassidut explains - a totally righteous person, cannot, in his relationship to G-d, stand where a penitent stands because a person who has fallen so low and sinned, when he repents rises much farther and higher than a tzaddik ever could without sinning.

This month of Elul, as it leads up to the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is a time of introspection and stock-taking. All the portions of the Torah read during the four Shabbats of this month refer either explicitly or implicitly to this practice. They talk of the establishment of cities - that serve in space what the month of Elul does in time - as a refuge for sinners, a protected sanctuary in which a man can turn from the shortcomings of his past and dedicate himself to a new and sanctified future.

Yet, even in the unlikely case where one has never disobeyed G-d's will, he may not have done all within his power to draw closer to G-d. This is the task of the month of Elul: a time of self-examination when each person must ask himself whether what he has achieved was all he could have achieved.

The Torah and the First Temple were a gift from G-d to the Jewish people which represented a time of innate holiness - when G-d took the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery and the symbolic redemption from sin which the biblical land of Egypt represented. The Second Temple belonged to a time of repentance and return: spiritually from the exile - caused by the sins of the Jews in their homeland of Israel which precipitated the destruction of the First Temple - and physically from Babylon to Israel and Jerusalem. With that return the world was being sanctified from within through Israel's own spiritual resources. The two temples each had their own distinctive virtue. The revelations of G-d's presence which belonged to the first were greater, but those of the second were more inward. The greatness of the Second Temple lay in its size (space) and its duration (time). It drew its sanctity not from G-d as he is above space and time but rather from man's own efforts to purify his finite world.



Tachanun Prayer at the Roumanian American Congregation, Rivington Street, NYC:



Shopping for a Shofar:


Thursday, August 16, 2018

Teshuvah - A Personal Story

With nothing exciting to do at home yesterday, I jumped on a train into New York City with no plan in mind. When I got to Penn Station, still with no idea what to do, I went to my fallback plan. The Chabad Mitzvah Tank is always on Fifty Seventh Street at Fifth Avenue on Wednesday afternoons. So, that's where I went.

The first time I experienced the Tank was at that location on February of 2013, the coldest day I'd ever felt in New York. I was out doing my street photography thing when Rabbi Stone asked me if I was Jewish and to help make up the minyan (a group of ten men for prayers). The thought of a warm place was irresistible. Once on the Tank, he wrapped me in tefillin, which I hadn't put on in about fifty years. Afterwards, on my walk back to Penn Station, I was warmer than anytime that day, and I was buzzing! Since that day I haven't missed a day of wearing tefillin.

Fast forward to yesterday. While I was chatting with Rabbi Stone on the air conditioned Tank, a businessman came in and the rabbi wrapped him in tefillin. Afterwards he (the businessman) said to me, 'I got my tefillin charge for the week.' For the week? After he admitted that he had a set at home, I got him to commit to putting them on every day. There was a reason why G-d brought me to the Tank that day.


Rabbi Stone blowing the shofar:



Rabbi Stone assisting a young man to put on tefillin:


Sunday, August 12, 2018

Teshuvah - Elul

Today is the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul - Rosh Chodesh. The month is full of mystical significance because it marks Moses' third and final ascent of Sinai to receive the Torah From G-d, and because the month leads into the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. As part of the observance of the mystical significance, the shofar - a hollowed out ram's horn - is sounded every morning after the morning prayer service. More about that to follow.

Five 'lefties' at the torah. Gevurah abounds.




Sounding the shofar.


Saturday, August 11, 2018

Teshuvah - Introduction

For quite a few years I've been photographing Jews at work, at play, at home, and at worship. The project that began in 1993 has led to some interesting insights and to wonderful spiritual discoveries and growth. I've been planning to combine the photographs and my story into a book entitled Teshuvah (hence the title of this blogpost). I'll be using the next series of blogposts to thresh out my thoughts and musings about the subject, and will be posting a selection of photos (old and new) that I plan to use in the book. The posts may be a bit scattered and the photos not to have particular relevance to the subject of the blogpost. But that's just my way of intuitively processing all the information I've been absorbing and trying to organize.

I felt the time was right to do this, as this Saturday and Sunday (August 11th and 12th) are Rosh Chodesh Elul - the beginning of the month of Elul in the Hebrew calendar. Elul is spiritually significant because it is the month of preparation that leads into the Jewish High Holiday season which includes Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, the festival of Sukkot, and Simchat Torah. The meaning of the name of the month will be part of the series of posts, as will the meaning of the word Teshuvah.  

Just as a caveat and a disclaimer, much of this material is very deep. The great Rebbes have spent many years exploring and studying the hidden messages of the Torah and Zohar and have devoted their lives to uncovering its secrets.  I'm neither a rabbi nor a scholar, just a thirsty student with a voracious appetite and a deep abiding desire to make sense of my soul and the world around me.

For a starter, consider the Hebrew bible. It's referred to in Hebrew as the TaNaK, which is a shorthand name for the three sections of the book: Torah or Pentateuch - the first five books (Bereishit - Genesis, Shemot - Exodus, Vayikra - Leviticus, Bamidbar - Numbers, and Devarim - Deuteronomy); Nevi'im or Prophets; and K'tuvim or writings. Within the Torah the first four books are the story of the Israelites from creation up to their entrance into part of the land that was initially promised to our forefather, Abraham (the actual promise from G-d included all the territory from the Euphrates River to the Mediterranean Sea, but according to Chassidus that will only happen with the coming of Moshiach). The final book, Devarim, might best be described as Moses' last will and testament. It's the retelling of the story of the first four books in a series of speeches Moses gave to the Israelites just before his passing and the Jews' crossing the Jordan River into what was to become, under the leadership of Joshua and the Judges that followed him, the biblical land of Israel.

The attribution of authorship of the Torah is an issue that has served as the defining point of the three contemporary main divisions in Judaism: 'orthodox', Conservative, and Reform. Until the mid-nineteenth century that attribution was simply to G-d. With the rise of the Haskalah movement (the 'Jewish enlightenment') and of biblical scholarship in the mid 1800's, questions about this have arisen. The Haskalah movement was a reaction of the assimilated Jews of Europe to downplay and 'modernize' the rituals and traditional observances of the very observant ('orthodox') Jews. The observant Jews were further divided into the traditionally observant mitnagdim, centered in Lithuania, and the newly emergent chasidic movement of the early 1700's that developed as a result of the teachings of the Ba'al Shem Tov (Besht) Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer. That division - of the mitnagdim and chasidim - is a story for another time. The Haskalah movement gave rise to what developed, especially in Germany and Austria, to the Reform movement that was carried to the shores of America by the influx of German Jews in the middle 1800's and of Eastern European Jews around the turn of the century. The emergence and rise of the Conservative movement during the first half of the Twentieth Century developed as a result of American Jews who felt that the Reform movement went too far in diluting the thousands of years of traditions and observances, so it sought to move closer to the orthodoxy.

But the dividing point is this: those of the orthodox and chasidic schools of observance believe in the divine authorship of the first four books of the Torah - in other words, they were written by G-d and given to Moses at Sinai. During the forty years between leaving Egypt and entry into Israel, G-d imparted the Oral Torah to Moses which he passed on to the Elders. The speeches that make up the book of Devarim given by Moses to the Israelites in the days leading up to their crossing into Eretz Yisrael were divinely inspired. The reform and conservative Jews reject the concept of that authorship. Rather, they ascribe the writing to a series of mortal men who collected and interpreted stories, myths, and legends about the first approximately 2500 years of history as recorded in the bible.

At issue is that if it was written my mortals and not divine - if man wrote it -man can change it. Truth and morality are no longer absolute.They become a convenience, relative to man's perception.


Trying to blow shofar:



The tallis rack in the basement of the First Roumanian American Congregation:



Artwork and book shelf of the shul:



Artist Nathan Hilu showing his work in the shul:



The graffiti covered facade of the First Roumanian Congregation Synagogue on Rivington Street in New York City:

Sunday, July 22, 2018

From My Library

Being Tish B'Av today, it's a slow day so I went back through my library to work on shots from the past that I never got to process. These are from January, 2016.